Monday, June 27, 2022

The Dark Shadows Daybook: June 27

Aired on this day in 1966: Episode 1


A sophisticated New Yorker gives up big city life for the charm of rural America. Will she find colorful locals and a talking pig… or terror? Mr. Wells: Conrad Bain. (Repeat; 30 min.)

Victoria Winters ventures from Manhattan to Collinsport to assume the position of governess in a forbidding mansion whose owners are ambiguous about her arrival. Along the way, she meets a brooding business tycoon, quietly obsessed with her future employer’s isolation. A charismatic diner waitress, Maggie Evans, joins in the chorus of those who warn her away from Collinwood.   

Okay, so technically it's the 56th anniversary of the first episode of Dark Shadows.

Except that it really isn't. It's the 56th anniversary of the first episode of Shadows on the Wall. After all, if Art Wallace had any idea that the show would’ve wound up like it did, there’s no way that this would have been the pilot. That doesn't make the pre-Barnabas episodes inferior, but I do see them as a separate series; I think it's helpful to look through that lens. 

How to introduce Dark Shadows? I mean, really. This sets a certain atmosphere, but I'm not certain it's an atmosphere that works with the ultimate point of the show. And yet it’s still a marvelous piece of television storytelling. 

This is both a small and large episode. It exists at night, with small ghostly characters surrounded by vast swaths of darkness. Yet, it’s an expansive episode, almost an epic by comparison to the rest of the series. It has 11 characters which is over twice the norm of the program. It takes place on trains and at the Blue Whale and at Collinwood and in New York and in the Collinsport Inn lobby and at the attached diner and even on a lonely street corner. It takes two cities to tell this story and uses abundant flashbacks, thus told over multiple days even though it's also just a tiny slice of one endless night. 

As the next episodes go on, they will all be taking place over this “day.” And yet this day begins after dark, and if that's supposed to be in early to mid June, during some of the longest days of the year, how long is that evening? That strange timelessness creates a wonderfully surreal slice of pure atmosphere. And pure atmosphere is what powers the entire story as we learn about Victoria Winters and her quest for home and meaning and identity, so yes, it’s the 56th anniversary of the first episode of Shadows on the Wall. And without that, we would have had no Dark Shadows. Let’s celebrate it as its own animal. And yes, I know it's all one big text and it's one big story. And yes, I am violating my own rules by looking at this as more of a slice of real-world production than the first piece of a 1225 piece puzzle. But what’s analysis without a little internal contradiction, right? 

It's fun to watch how Art Wallace deploys the characters, sets, and information that viewers will need. It gives a clear view of his priorities… and what did or did not hook audiences. 

As the episode begins, Vicki is introduced as someone in search of meaning, Having to find out as much as she possibly can about… everything. That singular need makes her oft-repeated mantra of, “I just don't understand” feel more grating for her to say than for us to hear. Meanwhile, Roger is preoccupied with the danger of bringing a stranger into the house, while Liz seems determined to do so. When we consider that Liz is the one who has been isolating herself for 18 years, this situation becomes intentionally absurd. That is a quieter mystery than Vicki’s quest. It's one to be revealed under the skin of the story, but it's more profound than any of the others. 

Painting Roger as an angry xenophobe may be the only sour note here. After all, the trial and Burke’s imprisonment were over a years ago. Unless Roger is obsessed with Burke's return, he's in a pretty comfortable place. The later Roger — of Dark Shadows — would be thrilled at someone new coming into town. And from a dramatic perspective, having him in a place of smug comfort might have been a good height from which he could fall with Burke's return. But it wouldn't give the character anywhere to go, and it sets up one more mystery — why is Roger such an intense sourpuss? 

As a character, Collinsport is depicted in a suitably dreamlike fashion; the conductor says that there are normally no regular stops there, making the town seem beyond isolated for a place with a major business within. We wonder how it can possibly hope to exist. Not only has Liz isolated herself, and not only is Collinwood a fortress from the outside, but the entire town seems insulated from any kind of external influence. We understand why Burke calls it “the beginning and the end of the world.” In her flashbacks, Vicki keeps hearing the question, “What are you going to do?” And her answer is the answer of the 20th century; to take action is to step into a void of nothingness, hoping for the best. 

Even though the episode is in black and white and it uses it magnificently, its investment in the symbolism of color is no more pointed than when we hear about what Burke and Vicki have physically brought to Collinsport. Burke is saddled with two black bags, literally representing his copious personal baggage and their ominous contents and weight. Vicki has only one piece of luggage: red. Her desirability or her heart or her intensity or sense of life? Or maybe Art Wallace just liked typing the word “red.” But it’s a passionate color, making her a tad less virginally naive when she meets her Collinsport counterpart, Maggie.

At this point they split up. Vicki stays at the inn… a place of nourishment and comfort, where people know Burke with a fond warmth incongruous with his cold demeanor. And Burke? He goes off to a bar, which says it all. He leaves the girl with the red tote and journeys to the Blue Whale. A color both sad and obscene, attached to the largest animal on the planet. Is he Jonah or Ahab or both? 

They both learn valuable information from possible allies. Or not. Vicky meets Maggie, who so little resembles the later character of Maggie Evans that the part might as well be played by Danny Trejo. Maggie is a wonderful foil for Vicki, worldly and edgy and keeping nothing to herself. They are both seemingly working class and yet nothing alike. 

At the bar, Burke learns that Elizabeth has been isolated for 18 years. That’s big news for the audience, but upon reflection it seems odd that Burke would not know some of this. He hasn’t been away that long. But the mystery of Collinwood pervades. It feels as if Vicki‘s impending danger is printed in bold on every page as the pilot moves her closer and closer to Collinwood. 

Just like Barnabas would, 211 episodes later, give or take, Vicki knocks on the door under the portmanteau to gain entry. It’s a very specific shot repeated for significant characters entering Collinwood… ones who seem to have more of a place there than many of the actual residents. As Liz ushers her in, the episode’s abrupt end brings our attention to what we still long to know.

As the camera pulls away from the conversation to follow, we feel like voyeurs yanked back into the anonymous night. It's a directorial move telling us that we have only gotten a brief glimpse. It’s a world meant to be guarded and cloaked. If we're lucky, maybe we will be allowed back in just as Vicki was allowed in. Will our stay be as brief?

It's a terse, suspenseful inauguration. What would that series have been like if it had been a success as envisioned? Within two years, Vicki would be not only lost in place, but in time as well. Her mysteries would mount rather than diminish. Perhaps Maggie never lost her brass as she gained texture and nuance. It takes grit and glamour to win the attention of television’s brainiest, most diabolical beaus. I don’t see Nicholas and Barnabas on the menu at this point, but I’m happy to hang around for them. Shadows are made to reveal surprises. Nothing could have surprised viewers more than what awaited them in the ones cast here. 

This episode hit the airwaves June 27, 1966.

No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...